Monday, March 27, 2017

The Highest Honor

I talk a lot about the Church being a people of God's mercy and delight. Here is another example of what that looks like:

Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983) was devout Dutch Christian who worked to rescue Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. She recounts an attempt to recruit a pastor to assist in offering refuge to those trying to escape the Holocaust:

Back in the dining room I pulled the coverlet from the baby’s face. There was a long silence. The man leaned forward, his hand in spite of himself reaching for the tiny fist curled around the blanket. For a moment I saw compassion and fear struggle in his face. The he straightened. “Definitely not. We could lose our lives for this Jewish child!” Unseen by either of us, Father had appeared in the doorway. “Give the child to me, Corrie,” he said. Father held the baby, his white beard brushing the little face. . . . At last he looked up at the pastor. “You say we could lose our lives for this child. I would consider that the highest honor that could come to my family.”

As it happened, Corrie’s father, Caspar ten Boom and other members of her family died in Nazi prison camps thereby receiving the honor of lying down their lives for the sake of the livers of others.

The ten Booms delighted in God and all other human beings, including those in whom it was inconvenient to delight, and thus they were prepared to extend mercy to those whose lives were threatened – even at the risk of their own safety and security. This is what it means to be a people of God’s mercy and delight. I pray that I and other Christians might more and more become such a people. I wonder how we might better form such a people.

Friday, February 24, 2017

A Radical Centrist Manifesto (2017) III: Jerome the Ciceronian

St. Jerome
St Jerome (347-420) was one of the great saints of the Church (and one crankier ones). He was a great Bible commentator and translated the Bible into Latin, the common tongue of the western Roman Empire. In a letter, Jerome recounted a vision he had in which he was revealed to be kidding himself about his true loyalties:

Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up. Asked who and what I was I replied: "I am a Christian." But He who presided said: "You lie; you are a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For 'where your treasure is, there will thy heart be also.'"

Jerome was convicted of believing himself to be a Christian although his thinking and living were much
more shaped by his loyalty to the Stoic philosophy of Cicero. As a result he was trying to make Jesus look more like Cicero. In the vision, Jesus called him out.

I wonder, What might Jesus say about our truest loyalties? Few Christians in America are likely to be accused of being followers “of Cicero and not of Christ.” But, are there other persons, entities, or philosophies that shape our identities more than Christ? Where do we find our deepest values and sense of belonging?

There are multiple possible answers. But, in our current polarized political and social context, it does seem that many get their identity more from belonging to “Conservatism” or “Progressivism” than following Jesus or belonging to the body of Christ, the Church. In fact, these two identities have much of the character of religious conviction and community. And the opposition between the two has the character of religious sectarian conflict. Some studies suggest that people are more likely to marry someone of another religious faith who shares the social/political identity than the other way around. For more on this, see HERE and HERE.

For much of my priestly career, I regularly took issue with the seeming inability of many in the Episcopal Church to distinguish a Liberal/Progressive prejudice from a Gospel imperative (see HERE). But, it is clear that Christian Conservatives are just as unable to disentangle their social and political prejudices from the Gospel and quite prepared “put Christian values on pause to get the work done.” Christian Conservatives are just as accommodated to culture as are Christian Progressives. They just accommodate different parts of the culture.

This is a problem because Jesus was not a first century manifestation of 21st century American Conservatism or Progressivism. Christianity is not seamlessly compatible with either. To try to make it so is a kind of idolatry. We who are Christians need to ask ourselves if we can tell the difference between our Conservatism/Progressivism and Christianity. And we need to wean ourselves of our emotional attachment to those and other identities that compromise our identity in Jesus.

What would the verdict be if we were “caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge”? Are we followers of Christ? Or are we followers of someone or something else? Conservatism? Progressivism? Nationalism? Is our allegiance to Jesus Christ or do we pledge allegiance to something else? As Jerome learned in his vision getting this straight is no small matter.

When we give our allegiance is to something other than Jesus Christ – Conservatism, Progressivism, this or that political party, or anything else  we can find ourselves endorsing things that followers of Jesus ought not endorse and excusing behaviors followers of Jesus ought not excuse. And our charity will be cramped as we limit our reverence and gentleness to those with whom we identify and who follow whatever idols we follow. And that is sin.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Radical Centrist Manifesto (2017) II: Not a Mid-point on a Spectrum

II. What it is Not, Part 2: Not a Mid-point on a Spectrum

To be a radical centrist as I mean it does not mean trying to locate oneself at some mid-point of an imagined right-left spectrum. The idea of such a spectrum along which everything must be placed as more or less Conservative or more or less Progressive (Liberal) is itself an idol that creates a sort of "conceptual trap"  a way of seeing things that so shapes the imagination that it is hard to imagine other ways of seeing.

To ask if Jesus (and Christianity in general) is more compatible with American Conservatism or American Progressivism (often called Liberalism) is like asking in China if Christianity is more compatible with Confucianism or Taoism.

The truth is there are ad hoc similarities between Christianity and both Taoism and Confucianism. A Christian who converts from either of those might look back and say; “Now I know what that means in the light of Christ” or “Oh, I need to change my mind and behavior if I want to conform to Jesus.” In the end, Taoism and Confucianism have a lot more in common with one another as varieties of the Chinese heritage than either of them has with Christianity which operates under a different logic.

The same is true for the socio-political ideologies of Conservatism and Progressivism which shape the way their adherents engage the world in ways analogous to religious faith. Both are rooted in Classical Western Liberalism (which is why I am using "Progressive" rather than the more common "Liberal" to identify one of its sub-traditions). In this sense, what we usually call “Conservative” is part of this Liberal Tradition as much as what we usually call “Liberal” or “Progressive.” As part of this Liberal Tradition, both Conservatives and Progressives share these tendencies:

* Fetishizing the individual as autonomous and independent

* Fetishizing the modern nation-state as the fundamental and ultimate socio-political reality to which final allegiance is given.

* Making faith primarily a private, personal matter rather than a matter of allegiance to the body of the Church.

* Infatuation with the notion of abstractions, e.g., love, justice, freedom, reason etc, as universally accessible and independent of traditions or particular communal histories and practices.

Given these similarities, from a Christ-centered perspective, ideological Conservatism and ideological Progressivism do not so much occupy opposite poles of a spectrum as they are more like points on contiguous sections of a dart board  like sections 16 and 7 – more or less removed from the center if the center is Jesus Christ.

To be clear, the point here is not that the heritage of Classical Western Liberalism is altogether bad, whether in its conservative or progressive manifestations. Doubtless there is good in that heritage, e.g., the breaking down of a fixed class system, moving toward the social equality of women, the acceptance of ideological and religious diversity, and things like the freedom of the press. Just as there are things about Taoism and Confucianism a Christian can embrace, there are things about the Liberal Tradition in both its more Conservative and it more Progressive forms Christians can embrace. Several of the things just mentioned actually have roots or antecedents in Christianity. And, all things considered, the Liberal Tradition is preferable to illiberal approaches to politics, e.g., Authoritarianism, Fascism, Marxism, ethno-nationalism.

Being a Centrist does not mean trying to be neutral or unengaged with the world around us. Jesus was neither. And centered Christians will have sympathies one way or another. But, we need to be wary of investing too much emotional energy or loyalty in political parties, movements, and ideologies lest our allegiance to them compromise our allegiance to Christ and inhibit our ability to love our neighbor.

If Christians are not suspicious of these loyalties, we will again and again fall into the trap of trying to fit Jesus and Christianity into those loyalties. The result is a fractured and compromised Church with no witness. The religious right seeks to make God, Jesus, and Christianity safe for conservative values. The religious left seeks to make God, Jesus, and Christianity safe for progressive values. The one ends up playing servile chaplain to the red states while the other plays servile chaplain to the blue states. And both end up more or less the chaplains of American Civil Religion. In their utter conformity, neither has a truly prophetic witness centered in what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Because both are content to repeat the prejudices of this world, neither is able to bear witness to the New Creation.

Wary of being drawn off Christ the center, radical Christian centrists will engage Conservatism and Progressivism both critically and sympathetically  seeking such ad hoc congruities as might be found. But it will not accept a view of the world in which they are poles on a spectrum along which Christians must place themselves.

Previous: A Radical Centrist Manifesto (2017) I: Introduction/Not Moderate

Next: A Radical Centrist Manifesto (2017) III: Jerome the Ciceronian

Friday, February 10, 2017

A Radical Centrist Manifesto (2017) I: Introduction/Not Moderate


Once, while sitting in the back of a class in seminary, I turned to a friend and said, “I’m a radical centrist.” At the time, I was mostly just amused by the oxymoronic irony of the phrase. But, upon reflection, I have come to appreciate the term. To be a Christian is to place the life and teaching of Jesus at the center of one’s life. This is the first is a series of posts in which I will explain what I think that means – and doesn’t mean.

I. What it is Not, Part 1: Not Moderate

Radical Centrist is not the same as “moderate.” I confess that I am congenitally cautious. Thus, I find moderation in and of itself an attractive idea. It can be a short-coming for sure. But I am also convinced that there is nothing moderate about following one who said things like:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
– Mark 8:34

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
– Matthew 5:44

For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
– Matthew 7:14

He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”
– Matthew 10:39

To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
– Luke 6:29

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
– Mark 10:25

So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
– Luke 14:33

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
– Matthew 5:28

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
– Matthew 5:22

If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
– Matthew 6:14-15

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.
– Mark 10:11-12

If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
– Luke 14:26

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others.
– Matthew 23:23

You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
– Matthew 25:41-46

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
– John 13:34-35

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you;
– John 6:53

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.”
– John 3:36

I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.
– John 14:6

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
– John 14:15

For more, see What Jesus Commanded

To be a radical centrist means being centered on Jesus Christ and taking seriously the radical challenge of his whole life and teaching. It also means being suspicious of attempts to rationalize or interpret away that challenge in any of the particulars in order to make Jesus ‘safe’. And it means being honest about one’s own failure to live into his radical challenge. There’s nothing very moderate about any of that.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The mind of the Spirit is life and peace

Last week I posted on this blog a letter Regarding Terrorism and Refugees that I wrote over a year ago to the Diocese of Fond du Lac: Regarding Terrorism and Refugees.

In my 20’s, I was on the board of a pro-life organization in Bloomington, IN. – not because I was a conservative, but because I was convinced it was faithful to Jesus. Even then I wasn’t an absolutist. Ironically, the chair of the board was a woman who was also the chair of the local Democratic Party and when I was invited to speak on the topic with a class at Indiana U., my counterpart defending the pro-choice position was a Republican woman. Things were different in the 80’s.

In my 30’s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, I was a Hand to Hand volunteer for the San Joaquin County AIDS Foundation in CA, which of course was mostly about assisting gay men and their lovers – not because I was a Liberal (I was actually more conservative on questions of sexuality then than I am now), but because I was convinced it was faithful to Jesus.

In my 40’s, I spoke out, preached, and marched against the invasion of Iraq – not because I was a Liberal, but because I because I was convinced faithfulness to Jesus demanded opposition. By the standards of the Church’s understanding of Just War it did not pass muster. That view was shared by the then Pope, John Paul II, and his eventual successor, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, neither of whom was considered liberal. I also opposed the invasion for purely prudential reasons – I did not think it would make us safer and would in fact create a mess making us less safe. The last 14 years have only confirmed that conviction.

Now, in my 50’s, I find myself needing to defend the welcome of refugees and oppose President Trump’s Executive Order on refugees – not because I am a Liberal, but because convinced it was faithful to Jesus. I share this view with the current Pope (and other RC bishops – Archbishop Charles Chaput of Chicago is a good example), the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Ed Stetzer, Senior Fellow of Wheaton College's Billy Graham Center, and Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, along with multiple Conservatives. Aside from Jesus, on purely prudential grounds, I believe that just as with the invasion of Iraq, Presidents Trump's Executive Order is based on misinformation and will not make us more safe, but less so as it alienates folk who we need as allies. The struggle against terrorism is as much a battle for hearts and minds as it is a military battle.

I could be wrong on any of these and people will disagree with me, but for me none of this is about Conservative vs Liberal. Jesus is neither. As a bishop of the Church I am obliged to “boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the conscience of [my] people.” (The Ordination of a Bishop, Book of Common Prayer, p. 518)

“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
(Romans 8:6)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Regarding Terrorism and Refugees

I made this statement over a year ago. I still believe it is the more faithful way.

Statement from Bishop Matt Gunter to the Diocese of Fond du Lac
Regarding Terrorism and Refugees
[November 20, 2015]

The recent attacks in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris have confronted us again with the fact that “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” are real. That evil has captivated and corrupted the imaginations of the people who perpetrate such wanton and callous killing and destruction. Let’s be clear. ISIS does not represent all of Islam. The religious ideology of ISIS and those like it is one corrupted by the evil powers of this world. And it is bent on destruction.
In baptism we renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God (Book of Common Prayer, p. 302). How might we do that in such dangerous times?

No doubt resisting this evil will include military and police action. We must pray for wisdom, care, and discernment for those charged with making decisions and acting in these areas.

We must also be willing to acknowledge and address the root causes and history of the turmoil in the region where ISIS flourishes that has made it fertile ground for such a misbegotten ideology to flourish.

Hard as it is, we must also pray for those whose imagination and actions have been shaped by the ideology of terror. As disciples of Jesus we must dare to pray “for our enemies and those who wish us harm, and for all whom we have injured or offended” (BCP, p. 391). We must not forget that they, too, bear the image of God and are loved by God.

And we must beware of the temptation to which we are all subject to cooperate with the evil powers that corrupt and destroy. We experience the effects of evil as suffering whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. Instinctively we react with the desire to strike back and put an end to the source of the suffering. And it brings with it the temptation to constrict our compassion in defensiveness. But, this logic leads us to live in fear, anxiety, and suspicion of others. It is the same logic as those who wish us harm. For the sake of our own souls we need to take care not to live by that logic. It is not the logic of Jesus.

The logic of Jesus is love and mercy. Not sentimental or naïve love, but clear-eyed love that is prepared to take up the cross and follow the way of Jesus in self-denial. There is no doubt that in times such as ours this love involves risk. These are dangerous times and there are those who wish us harm. But, I do not see how we can be faithful to Jesus and not risk the love and the mercy that flow from belief in him. Can we ignore Lazarus at our gate (Luke 16:19-31)? Can we pass by those beaten and abandoned alongside the road (Luke 10:25-37)? Can we neglect showing hospitality to strangers knowing that thereby some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2)? Can we say to those who come to our door in need, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and not supply their bodily needs (James 2:16)? If we do we will be acquiescing to those very evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy.

We live in dangerous times. There are evil powers in this world which corrupt and destroy. And so, there is no absolutely safe way to love with the mercy of Jesus. But our neighbors, Christian and Muslim, from Syria and beyond have been robbed and left alongside the road by the very evil powers we must resist. Part of that resistance is to welcome some of the victims seeking refuge from that evil. It is my hope that the people of Wisconsin and the Diocese of Fond du Lac will do so. We must do so wisely and with care. And we should do so trusting that God honors such love and mercy. Especially in dangerous times.

Under the Mercy,

The Rt. Rev. Matthew Gunter

VIII Bishop of Fond du Lac

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Top 10 Posts of 2016

Here are the ten posts that received the most attention in 2016. Three had to do with things Anglican/Episcopal. The other seven are each from the series on mercy and delight that was my main focus on the blog for the second half of the year. That whole series seems more pertinent than ever as we move into 2017.

      Though it did not quite make the top 10, I am including this follow-up post on loving your enemies.


And just for good measure, here is #11: